David L. Wolper, whose landmark 1977 miniseries “Roots” engrossed the nation with its saga of an American family descended from an African slave, has died. He was 82.
Wolper died peacefully in his Beverly Hills home Tuesday (Aug. 10) evening while watching television with his wife Gloria, said spokesman Dale Olson. Wolper died of congestive heart disease and complications of Parkinson’s disease, Olson said.
During his lengthy career, Wolper produced the children’s classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and demonstrated his showman instincts with New York’s 1986 extravaganza celebrating the Statue of Liberty centennial and the 1984 Olympic Games ceremonies in Los Angeles.
But his TV work remained his best-known accomplishment, particularly “Roots,” based on the best seller by Alex Haley. The ABC series was seen in whole or part by 130 million people — more than half the country — when it ran for eight nights in 1977.
“I make it happen,” Wolper said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. “Who bought Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’ for TV? Me. I hired the director, hired the writer. I put them all together. I’m like the chef. If I mix all the ingredients right, it’s going to taste terrific. If I don’t, it’s not going to come out good.”
The miniseries chronicling Kunta Kinte, enslaved as a teenager in 18th-century West Africa to be sold in America, and his descendants represented a different kind of family story, one told from the black perspective. It was based on Haley’s novel, a Pulitzer Prize-winner that mixed accounts of his own ancestors with fiction.
Among the large cast were John Amos, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Cicely Tyson, Olivia Cole, Madge Sinclair and Richard Roundtree.
Newcomer LeVar Burton, who played Kinte as a youth, became an instant star. The series won a slew of honors including nine Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award.
In 2002, Wolper produced a 25th-anniversary special on the impact of “Roots,” which aired on NBC after ABC turned down the idea.
“I think it was an important milestone in the history of television,” then NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said at the time. “It introduced the miniseries. It showed what you could do if you had the courage of your convictions to put something on like that.”
Wolper also produced several other miniseries, including the 1979 sequel “Roots: The Next Generations,” ”The Thorn Birds” and “North and South.”
Before becoming a titan in the miniseries genre, Wolper had a series of highly successful TV documentaries, including the Emmy-winning “The Making of the President 1960.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.